The last time I was in a Dane County courtroom in the City-County Building was in late October, and former state Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala was pleading guilty to two felonies.
As I sat in the spectator seats in Judge David Flanagan's small courtroom, it dawned on me it might be my last time in the old courthouse, and it probably was. The new $44 million, nine-story courthouse on South Hamilton Street is scheduled to open in less than two weeks.
So as the somber business of the Chvala matter played out, I thought back to the first time I had been in the courthouse. It was more than 30 years ago. I was in high school at Madison West and among a small group of students with an interest in the law as a career who had been invited on a field trip to court.
A judge had been good enough to host us for the day, inviting us into his chambers before and after court and allowing us to sit in the spectator seats while he conducted a one-day civil trial.
The judge was Archie Simonson, and none of the West students ever forgot it, because within a few years Simonson got himself into terrible trouble for his remarks from the bench regarding the sexual assault of a 16-year-old Madison West student. The community was so outraged that it voted to recall Simonson, and the judge eventually lost the recall election to Moria Krueger.
Thinking about Simonson, I remembered that at the height of the controversy, he hired an attorney to help him stop putting his feet in his mouth.
Madison's liberal establishment was furious at Simonson -- many thought his comments, which came during sentencing, came close to blaming the young girl for her own assault -- but the lawyer who agreed to help Simonson was one of the liberal establishment's own, one of Madison's most respected attorneys, Dick Cates.
It took courage for Cates to represent Simonson, and though I never asked him, I suspect Cates did it because he revered the law more than popularity and thought everyone, even a momentarily foolish judge, deserved at least a fair shake.
Flash forward 30 years, and there were a number of remarkable things about that October day in the soon-to-be-vacated courthouse in the City-County Building. The humbling of Chvala was the primary one. But I couldn't help but notice one of the lawyers on Chvala's defense team, sitting in a chair directly behind Chvala and his primary lawyer, James Olson.
It was Dick Cates, co-founder of Olson's law firm, Lawton & Cates. Some things don't change. Dick Cates -- who would turn 80 in November -- was still willing to fight for an unpopular cause.
After court that day, I got a chance to spend about 20 minutes with Dick. We walked together, slowly, up to his firm's offices on the Capitol Square. We had known each other, casually, for years -- Dick and his wife, Marnie, were good friends of my parents. They were in a small dinner group, half a dozen couples, who met once a month or so.
That day in October, there was much I wanted to tell him, but -- let me be honest -- sometimes a conversation with Dick can be a bit one-sided. He enjoys talking and is good at it. As I recall, we talked that day about college boxing, about my parents, and his wife.
In hindsight, I wish I had said what I'd been thinking, which is that with the City-County Building courthouse being retired, there is no one who over half a century brought more integrity and passion to the law practiced inside than Dick Cates.
As a young reporter, a freelance writer really, I got an assignment from Marc Eisen at Isthmus suggesting I profile an assistant district attorney. The young prosecutor recommended to me by DA Jim Doyle, now governor, was Bill Foust, today a judge. What I remember of talking with Foust was his saying: "Dick Cates is a terrific lawyer."
In a profession not always known for embracing mutual admiration, that belief was nearly universal. Over a long and varied career there was little Cates did not do at one time or another. In the late '50s he was an assistant Dane County DA; he served in the state Assembly and on the Madison School Board; and perhaps most famously, in 1973, he went to Washington, D.C., as associate special general counsel to Peter Rodino's House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment inquiry of President Richard Nixon.
His trial advocacy was legendary. I was searching some faded news clips several years ago trying to put together a column on a notorious Wisconsin con man, Clark "Pappy" Fry, who had people standing in line to help finance a mysterious "energy" machine that would render gasoline and other fuels obsolete. It was 1962, and Pappy's lawyer was Dick Cates, who struck a plea deal with prosecutors to throw out 10 of 11 counts against Pappy, who promptly asked to use a pay phone so he could con someone out of money for his bail.
Around the same time, in a case of considerably more gravity, Cates won a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict for a Madison man, Gregory Esser, who had fatally shot a teenager on a hunting trip. The case eventually went to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which upheld the verdict while issuing a new definition of insanity to be used by state courts in criminal proceedings.
Earlier this year, Cates was presented the Charles Goldberg Award for Lifetime Service by the State Bar of Wisconsin. Attorney Robert Habush said at the time, "Few have contributed as much as you to the Bar and the community at large. On a personal note, from the first time I saw you demonstrate your trial advocacy skills I have tried to fashion my delivery to a jury in your down home, low key, yet intense style."
Let's hope the new courthouse can produce a lawyer or two like Dick Cates.
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